Heath hens now appearing at the M.V. Museum

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Heath Hens created by students are featured in the exhibit.—Stacey Rupolo

No animal more captures the hearts of longtime Vineyarders than Booming Ben, the last of a once lively species of fowl called the heath hen, last seen — or at any rate heard — howling for a mate that never arrived; the females of the breed were long gone in 1930, on the Katama sandplains. What “done ’em in” was chiefly the fact that they were delicious. That old saw “They taste like chicken” was appallingly apt: They were chickens, a little taller, more swaggering from millennia of free-range living. The early Puritans discovered the heath hen as a choice menu item, according to some historians. Local Montessori students Tomas and Matthew expanded on this information for a new exhibit at the museum: “On the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving, the main meal was heath hen, not wild turkey.”

Educator Ann Ducharme of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and biologist Kendra Buresch have joined up to create a 10-class overview of long-deceased heath hens and still-thriving moths “to bring awareness to critical issues impacting our Island today — using science, history, and math.” And to that we might add “time spent in nature,” something we older generations remember fondly as the major part of our childhood, as opposed to the screen-staring habits of today.

For the first try-out of heath hen then/moths now classes, the Ducharme & Buresch team worked with students from the Montessori School, ages 5 through 13. (Their next round of the 10 lessons, scheduled soon, will accommodate 50 second graders from the Oak Bluffs School.) First the kids are introduced to sandplain and frostbottom habitats, then they create their own habitat patches at school. By class four, they’re exposed to a digitized map of the Island habitats from 1850, then shown modern maps to learn how scientists create vegetation patterns, then finally students draw maps of their own.

Class 5 deals with wildfires as destructive but necessary for the heath hen habitat. By class 6, kids make their own dioramas of heath hen nests in sandplains and frostbottoms, under the supervision of their school art teacher. A manual from the M.V. Museum syllabus says, “Compare how plants and animals including the heath hen depend on their surroundings and other living things to meet their needs.”

Classes 7 through 10 range from subjects of extinction, habitat creatures now and then, introducing our rich ecology of moths, brainstorming on how our actions today can protect all living beings, and, finally, a grand preparation of a research fair. The Montessori fair, snappily titled “Here Today, Gone Tomorrow,” has arrived for the public as the headline exhibit at the museum campus on School Street.

Student art and text make up the lion’s share of the charming and informative display, with some additional knockout features, including, under glass, two actual heath hens, stored since the 1920s and taxidermied in 1949. For those of us who’ve only heard of the heath hen through the poignant story of Booming Ben, to behold what was once the real deal feels a bit like coming upon a stuffed unicorn. Also, a fascinating poster prepared by Montessori student Grace tells us about a serious cloning scheme for the heath hen: “People [Harvard scientist George Church and colleagues] are thinking about taking the heath hen’s DNA [from these very specimens under glass] and mixing it with a live prairie chicken.” These Harvard brainiacs are also planning to clone the woolly mammoth (seriously).

Another fun display is a video and a pair of headsets doling out the triumphant sounds of “Carmina Burana” as we watch students re-enact the glacier formation of Martha’s Vineyard 15,000 years ago. We see the dozen or so kids cling together as the Laurentide Ice Sheet, break off a few kids to form the Island, then retreat back north into the ocean. Choreographer Kimberly Ulmer created this huggy dance to add another artistic element to the science-history-math formula.

One wall is covered with students’ habitation maps surrounding a modern-day digitized map. The far wall, observed as we enter, is chockablock with students’ dioramas built inside shoeboxes. Some comments by the diorama biologist artists:

Quinn: “I used paper, paint, glitter, glass, sand, and moss.”

Matthew explaining a roll of brown bag paper: “It represents a hill in the habitat.”

Evie regarding the frostbottom she depicts: “The hottest is 90 degrees, and the coldest is 20 degrees.”

Carly: “I used magazines and I carved [the swatches] all over the birds.”

Daniel and Tomas made flowers out of tissue paper, also adding “sand, branches, and little bushes.”

Madeleine: “There are two strips on the side for firebreaks.”

Natalie: “I like to put some of the sand or a bit of the straw or paint and then spread it everywhere with my finger. It looks kind of blobby.”

Silas: “I used browns to make it look realistic.”

Marisol: “My habitat has a nice blue sky.”

Declan (the Picasso of the group): “My bird has two faces.”

The north wall holds an impressive set of posters and paintings to show the variety of moths on our Island. Biologist Paul Goldstein explained to the kids, ”There are 10 times more moths than butterflies.” It’s this kind of biodiversity that helps all species, he said. Moths are, believe it or not, full of fat and protein. If you happen to be a bird or bat.

“Here Today, Gone Tomorrow” will, happily, be here through mid-May. Library hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 – 4. For more information call 627-4441 or visit the website at mvmuseum.org.